One day, while I was sitting outside the place we called the rumah gong, waiting for my lesson, an old man in a white turban came striding along the road and stopped directly in front of me. I was holding my flutes. From inside the music room came the sound of Betty’s lesson: the syncopation of the Legong Dance repeated again and again.
The old man stood close, within a yard of me, thrust his face towards mine and glared into my eyes. I said `Good morning’, and smiled politely. He turned his head to glare at the rumah gong, then again, he glared at me, quite balefully.
‘Apa kabar?’ I said, for lack of anything better, `What news?’ The old man shook a fist towards the rumah gong, then towards me. `Oh?’ I said. He pointed in a jabbing way at my flutes, then mimed the playing of a flute. His eyes rolled, his head wobbled, he held his elbows high, he lifted his shoulders and leaned a little sideways in a burlesque of ecstasy. Suddenly he hurled his imaginary flute down. He leapt into the air, thrusting off with one leg and holding the other high with knee bent and foot upturned. As he leapt, his arms rose and became wings and his expression turned mawkish. In this way, he leapt high, flapped slowly and bird-danced gracefully in a circle. In front of me again, he pushed his face to within inches of mine and glared. I nodded emphatically. I was sure I had his message: `Your music is for the birds’.
The old man walked away in the direction from which he had come. Every few yards, he stopped and looked back at me. In spite of his glare, I felt no real anger coming from him, but something benign, perhaps sympathy. Soon, he was out of sight. I was sitting, holding my flutes, with something to think about.
Pak Raka Suling, would stroll gracefully on the roads. His abstracted manner, the carriage of his head and his long, dark sarong gave him a monkish air. Sometimes he would visit us at night appearing suddenly from the darkness, to discuss music. He would listen to tapes of European music and if we asked him, would repeat the melodies on the bamboo flute.
Sometimes when we met on the road, he would take my arm and we would stroll with measured steps.
`l like to talk’, he said; but it was difficult to go beyond domestic conversation. Raka’s sense of humor was keen, but we saw it only when he talked with others, for he liked to play on words, using the words of the Balinese and the Indonesian language. We were not up to that.
One day he explained to me the story of a song Puh Sinom, an involved sad story of love, of the town, of the forest, of a ring by which a parent recognised a long lost child. He played the tune on the suling, then sang the song. As I write, I hear it played on a tape recorder: twining forest music, and Raka’s voice rises and falls and wavers like something wind-blown. Now the lament is taken by the flute.
Very early every morning, Raka passed by, walking towards Campuan Village and his rice field. To late risers like ourselves, who did not see him at work he seemed to lead the life of a gentleman.
We saw dances: the famous Kecak at Bona village, the Ardja at Peliatan. This last was so crowded that we had to stand huddled in a dense crowd or watch from a distance. While we were in the crowd, I saw a tall English tourist bumping viciously with his elbows at the ears of little boys who pushed beside him. And wonderful to relate, a small Scottish woman who stood beside him, punched the tall man just as viciously in the kidneys so he grunted and mumbled.
When we sat at a distance, a young Balinese man edged close to Betty and offered himself for just one dollar – she refused politely.
One dark starry night, Raka took us to a tiny village nearby we walked through the cremation grounds and our torch lit a small, green snake on the road. In the village centre a flimsy pavilion had been built to cover the dancing area. Bright spirit lamps hung on bamboo poles lit the many brown and few white faces of the waiting audience.
One of the Europeans was an American student of the dance who had been in Bali for a year; another was the clean cut American Buddhist Abraham, who bowed over his finger tips with an expression of sweetness. The leader of the gamelan came forward and clapped Rake’s shoulder. `We are good friends’, he said to us.
The instruments of the gamelan were carved and decorated in red and gold. There was a small tent arrangement, the dressing room, with curtains leading onto the earthen stage. We sat on a low, brick wall. The show would begin in Bali time. We waited. Little boys laughed at us without malice and made feinting snatches at my cigarette. To save our supply we took on a schoolmarm attitude and told them they were far too young to smoke. They postured, and repeated our words.
We waited. Little girls stood still and looked at us with big brown eyes. Even amongst the children, males and females know the female place. •
We waited. Men squatted with their hands dangling between their knees and turned their heads about slowly, looking at nothing. Raka looked straight ahead. The Europeans had to make small talk with one another. ‘
We waited. Women holding, and not holding babies, stood back where the light begins to fade; lovely round, placid faces, short noses, wide mouths, smooth foreheads with the hair pulled back to great buns.
The gamelan began to play. It was an easy going syncopated melody with the gangsas dinging softly, but now and again it broke into a passage of agitated, clanging sound.
It was almost midnight and the moon had risen. It hung directly overhead, a floating, golden ball. The moonlight caught the silver thread of the curtains making them gleam; I glanced away then back. The curtains fluttered. I stared and could not look away as a finger, then two, shimmering in the light of the moon, jewels and their own motion, parted the curtains almost imperceptibly.
The fluttering curtains stilled the fluttering tongues. The only voice was that of the gamelan as it rose, fell and hovered, like the hand parting the curtains. Time seemed suspended too. The known hand drew our concentration to an unknown figure. My whole attention was on the figure which now emerged and moved with audacious confidence. As I watched, I shivered. The body was exquisitely costumed. An embroidered cloak hung from the shoulders, the outline of the kris jutted below the shoulder. The ankles were circled in gold and the feet were slim and bare, toes upturned. The figure moved superbly circling the pavilion
It was not a man. It was a presence. The white mask was covering personal identity. The man had become the mask. The presence moved triumphantly, the smile was enigmatic and the bulging eyes glowed. I felt uncertain, apprehensive of the figure and its influence. I turned away. I felt I must leave, but I realised 1 could not go alone through the forest at midnight. I turned back. The spell had broken and 1 saw a man.
He retreated to the curtain and disappeared. The audience stirred. The gamelan stridently announced the characters in this night’s performance of the Chronical Play of Bali, a living history of royal families and kingdoms, of facts, legends and miracles, the TOPENG.
I did not tell of what I had experienced till long after. I did speak though with the American student of dance, the lady from New York who had fallen in love with Bali, the dance, and her Balinese teacher. `Tonight’, she said, `we saw the master of the Bali Topeng. He is an old man now, loved and revered by the Balinese. He carved the masks he wore tonight. I saw them in the tent just before the performance; they were covered with white cloth. The dancer unwrapped the mask and gazed at it for some time before he put it to his face,.’ she said, `At that instant, he was transformed. He had taken on completely the character of the mask’.